Human Rights Defense Center v. Baxter County, Arkansas, No. 19-2096 (8th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
HRDC filed suit against Baxter County under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Jail's postcard-only policy violates HRDC's First Amendment right to communicate with Jail inmates. HRDC also alleged that the Jail's rejection of HRDC's mailings violated HRDC's Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights to notice and an opportunity to appeal the Jail's decisions. The district court initially granted partial summary judgment in favor of HRDC. After a bench trial, the district court held that the postcard-only policy was reasonably related to legitimate penological goals and did not violate HRDC's First Amendment rights. The district court awarded HRDC four dollars in nominal due process damages for its four discrete August 2016 mailings.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed the due process ruling and concluded that the district court did not err in granting only nominal damages where HRDC failed to prove actual injury flowing directly from the technical due process violation in August 2016. The court vacated the First Amendment ruling where the district court made no finding of fact regarding whether HRDC proved its assertion that the postcard-only policy results in "a de facto total ban" on Jail inmates accessing HRDC's materials. The court explained that it is necessary for the court to have a finding on what, if any alternative means are available to HRDC to exercise its First Amendment interest in access to prisoners. Therefore, the court remanded for further proceedings.
Court Description: [Per Curiam - Before Loken and Grasz, Circuit Judges, and Pitlyk, District Judge] Civil case - Civil rights. Plaintiff, a publisher of legal materials aimed at prison populations, alleged the Baxter County, Arkansas jail's policy limiting most communications with inmates to postcards, violated its constitutional rights. The district court concluded the jail's rejection of the publisher's mailings was a technical violation of the publisher's due process rights to notice of the reason for the rejection and an opportunity to be heard; the court also found that that the post-card policy was reasonably related to legitimate penological goals and did not violate the publisher's First Amendment rights. Held: it is not possible on this record to determine what, if any alternative means are available to the publisher to exercise its First Amendment interest in access to the prisoners, and the dismissal of the publisher's First Amendment claim is vacated and the matter remanded for further proceeding on this issue; with respect to the publisher's due process claim, the district court did not err in granting only minimal damages. Judge Loken, concurring in part and dissenting in part.